After a gritty early life influenced by fear, desertion, drugs, and violence amid the mills of Haverhill, Andre Dubus III emerged a prolific writer and steadfast family man. Upon the release of townie: a memoir the best-selling author sits down with Karen Propp at his Newbury home to retell his volatile past and how he overcame it. Photographs by Christopher Churchill
Andre Dubus III is a proud family man.Within minutes of meeting the acclaimed author at his Newbury home, he enthusiastically introduces me to his sister, Suzanne, his wife, Fontaine, and 13-year old son, Elias, the youngest of his three children. “Are you hungry? Want some lasagna?” he booms, gesturing to a casserole dish covered in tin foil. “I made it myself.”
He gives me a tour of his house-capacious rooms, vaulted ceilings-that he and his younger brother, Jeb, built. “At the time it seemed like an important thing to be doing,” says the author, best known for the novel House of Sand and Fog, which was an Oprah book club selection and made into the Hollywood film of the same name.
The ease and security that Dubus enjoys now is a far cry from the deprived childhood and violent coming-of-age he describes in his stunning new memoir, Townie. After his parents’ divorce in the early 1970s, when he was 10, Dubus and his three siblings moved often between rental houses in rough neighborhoods in Newbury and Haverhill. Although his mother worked hard as a registered nurse and then as a social worker, by the end of most months they’d run out of food. “It’s something we’d all gotten used to,” writes Dubus, “that hollowness in the veins, the nagging feeling there was always just a bit too much air behind your ribs.”
His father, Andre Dubus, was then a professor at Bradford College, writing the short stories for which he would become famous and revered. He remarried, divorced, and then married again. Other than the Sunday afternoons during which he took out the four children to a restaurant or movie, he was largely absent from the lives of his children. As Dubus puts it, “I was a kid who was not seen by men.”
In one of the book’s opening scenes, when Dubus’s father unexpectedly invites teenaged Andre along for a morning run in the woods, the boy is flattered and pleased. Not until the end of the 11-mile run, when Andre peels off his shoes to reveal toes that had “split open at the sides like sausages over a fire” does his father notice that his son’s sneakers are two sizes too small. Yet Dubus writes about that grueling run: “I couldn’t remember ever feeling so good. About life. About me. About what else might lie ahead if you were just willing to take some pain, some punishment.”
There are plenty of opportunities to take some pain and punishment. In his early teens, Dubus is habitually threatened, bullied, and hurt. Helpless, ashamed of his weak body, he stands passively as a neighborhood toughie smashes in his younger brother’s face and calls his mother a whore. He decides to get strong, fight back. He stops getting high at the bus stop before school and begins working out in his basement with an old weight set, then trains and learns to box at nearby Connolly’s gym.
Truly compelling is Townie’s honesty about the sources and psychological mechanisms of violence. In pitch-perfect prose, Dubus narrates the fights that break out in crowded school corridors and at the backs of school buses, and then at bars, restaurants, and function halls: fights for money owed, girlfriends stolen, drug deals gone awry, or simply because someone looks the wrong way at someone else. “Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t fight,” says Dubus.
Andre gets stronger and bigger, but that does not prevent his sister from getting raped by two men in the back of a car on a snowy night in Boston. He gets angrier, more keyed up. When a local tormentor kicks Dubus’s brother down the stairs of the Tap Restaurant, Andre’s punch jabs knock out the tormentor’s two front teeth. He nearly kicks a guy to death at the former Sambo’s restaurant in Monument Square.
As a fighter, Dubus wins his father’s attention and admiration. And he comes to need his role as protector for family and friends. After sending a few fast, well-placed jabs, Dubus writes, “I lay in the glow of the hurt I’d caused, and I felt completely virtuous, as brave and selfless as a good father.”
In his early twenties, he finds his way out of violence through writing. The act of writing gives him one of the crucial things he got from fighting; a way to shatter an invisible membrane around himself and other people in order to stand in a deeper truth. Andre sent one of his first short stories to his father, who promptly called and said, “You’re a writer, man.” He advised his son to get a night job as a bartender so he could have time to write during the day.
Today, sitting in his home before a well-tended fire and drinking tea sweetened with agave, Dubus calls Townie an “accidental memoir.” He explains how he originally tried to write a personal essay about baseball when he began coaching on his son’s baseball teams, only to realize he knew nothing about baseball. “How did I miss baseball?” Dubus says. “I began the essay with that question.” In search of an answer, he began writing about growing up in mill towns with no father, no uncles. It was a book he’d been trying to write for 20 years. “I wasn’t angry when I wrote it,” he says. “I didn’t have a score to settle. This is the conversation I never got to have with my father.” About his own fatherhood experiences, Dubus says, “I’ve enjoyed every second of it. I see how my father got robbed.”
Dubus’s two older children drift into the house. Fifteen-year-old daughter Ariadne dances in the Joppa Dance Company and 18-year-old Austin is applying to colleges. “I made lasagna. Did you eat yet?” inquires the devoted father, who as a kid stole money from his mother’s purse to buy chips and a Pepsi for breakfast.
“We never planned our lives,” says Dubus about his 23-year-marriage to Fontaine Dollas Dubus, owner and director of The Dance Place in Newburyport and co-director of Exit Dance Theater. “We just made love and had kids.”
Dubus teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. “I see many students there who come from broken homes and are passionate about changing their lives,” he says. “I love them.” Spoken like a man who was meant to be a father.